When your boyfriend resents your success

"To say the findings are troubling is putting it mildly, though they are findings that will be familiar to many people."

"To say the findings are troubling is putting it mildly, though they are findings that will be familiar to many people." Photo: Getty

Like most card-carrying Sex & The City fans, the memory - and agony - of Carrie’s relationship with aspiring novelist Jack Berger is still as raw as ever. (So raw, in fact, that when I once saw the actor who portrayed him, Ron Livingston, at the supermarket I had to stop myself from giving “Berger” a hysterical dressing down in the pasta aisle “for what you did to Carrie!!”)

That story arc, in which Berger’s simmering resentment of Carrie’s success as a writer just as his grip on his own publishing contract is slipping eventually reached the point where he broke up with her via a Post-It Note, is echoed in research released this past week by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In which it was found that heterosexual men are far more threatened by their partner’s success than women are when the roles are reversed.

The study, Gender Differences in Implicit Self-Esteem Following a Romantic Partner’s Success or Failure, conducted experiments with 896 people in heterosexual relationships in order to test the theory that men’s self-esteem would take a beating if their partner’s successes - however they interpret that concept - outshone their own.

Berger and Carrie in happier, pre-Post-It Note times.

Berger and Carrie in happier, pre-Post-It Note times.

Whether their partner’s success was financial, academic, social or otherwise, and even if it had nothing to do with something the men were themselves striving towards, the men studied inevitably felt their own self-esteem plummet. As the study noted, “The lack of difference lends some support to the idea that men interpret ‘my partner is successful’ as ‘my partner is more successful than me’.”

Crucially, the men only rated their implicit self-esteem as falling (“the test for implicit, or subconscious, self-esteem involved measuring how quickly they associated positive or negative words with the word ‘me’”) as opposed to their explicit self-esteem: “[M]en didn’t explicitly report feeling worse about themselves, whether because they didn’t consciously notice or because they didn’t want to portray themselves as insecure jerks, we cannot say,” Julie Beck writes in The Atlantic.

To say the findings are troubling is putting it mildly, though they are findings that will be familiar to many people.

Like so many unhelpful behaviours, it’s also likely that such resentment is born out of outmoded gender expectations: men believing they have to be the breadwinner, and consequently feeling emasculated or inadequate when they perceive themselves to be usurped by their partner’s successes. “There are strong gender stereotypes where men are typically associated with strength, competence, and intelligence; a partner’s success, especially if it is construed as an own failure, is not compatible with the stereotype and could negatively impact self-esteem,” the study notes.

You could even argue that the study’s female participants’ reporting that they’d celebrate their partner’s successes plays into this; the woman isn’t meant to compete with her mate, rather to sit back and applaud him. (Think of Carrie’s demented applauding of every minute detail in Berger’s book in a desperate attempt to soothe his dented ego.)

There’s a darker side to the findings, as Slate’s Amanda Marcotte explores in her reaction to the study: “The results also might speak to the roots of some domestic abuse, as men who have the greatest need to ‘win’ the relationship could be more motivated to undermine and control their partners. (The study isn't suggesting this—I am.) But these findings should also be troubling to men. Feeling insecure and competitive with your partner is no way to live. The researchers suggest that these kinds of feelings might be mediated by relearning how to think about gender roles, i.e. becoming more feminist.”

And if your man moves from sulking to bulk purchasing Post-It Notes, run for the hills. 

35 comments

  • My wife worked her way through a Masters and is now doing a job she loves, working for a great company with great people. I muddled my way through my early 20's, fell into a relatively easy job, and then moved into a position with a company I hate and people I can't stand. Do I resent my wife's success and happiness compared to my own perceived failings? Yes, and those are feelings I struggle with every day, especially since I am actively trying to improve my own situation so I don't have to feel this way. Do I resent my wife's success because she's a woman? Of course not, and I think it's grossly unfair to categorise it this way. Feelings of resentment and envy towards those more successful than you, while not particularly healthy or anything to be proud of, are common, especially in romantic relationships. But what if this study had been widened to include homosexual couples, or even those in particularly close platonic relationships? Focusing on purely heterosexual relationships is bound to reveal this bias, because I'm sure the gender implications you mention exist. In fact, I believed it of myself for a very long time, before I worked through it and realised it wasn't about her gender, but my own unhappiness. However, it seems, to me at least, that the author of the study has found their conclusion and then presented statistics to support that conclusion, rather than conducting the research and then drawing a conclusion from the evidence.

    Commenter
    Ben
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    September 04, 2013, 9:03AM
    • Horse Hockey!

      Sex in the city is hardly a good basis for social commentary. This is the 2nd time in 2 days where it's been used as basis to get a point across.

      My wife excels in everything she does, education, employment, etc. and she is way more successful than me in these respects. I couldn't be happier or prouder. I love that she's acheived what she has.

      Cue Carrie Bradshaw shoe moment to remind me that men are self obsessed egotists.....!

      Commenter
      Amused
      Location
      Watching yet another episode of SITC
      Date and time
      September 04, 2013, 1:15PM
    • +1 Amused. Sex and the City has done a lot of damage to us women who are nothing like those characters. Men started believing that every well dressed woman was like Carrie Bradshaw. And now journalists are citing fictional situations as real life ones.

      I wish that stupid show had never aired.

      Commenter
      Audra Blue
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      September 04, 2013, 4:27PM
  • What a load of tosh. I'm proud of my wife for being successful.

    Commenter
    JR
    Date and time
    September 04, 2013, 9:16AM
    • JR, I'm not sure that your example (i.e. as one heterosexual male) is enough to entirely disprove the results of a study of 896 people.

      Commenter
      Clem Bastow
      Date and time
      September 04, 2013, 10:09AM
    • My hubby keeps nagging me to climb higher in my organisation -so that he can stay home with the kids! He would love to be a stay at home dad. I wonder if culture has anything to do with it -is it only the Western males who get their knickers in a knot if their female partner goes out more/earns more and is generally happier than they are? Are there trends for age, socio economic demographics, country, time-based data? I know that I had a grudge against my partner when he would talk about social events his workplace would organise, when I was facing redundancy at a previous job (which I didn't enjoy anyway, compounding the depression). I think it goes both ways, esp if the female is not happy. You always resent a successful person more if you're already feeling bummed, right?

      Commenter
      Didi
      Date and time
      September 04, 2013, 11:54AM
    • how did you come by that study? 101 of statistics is that data mining will deliver a subjectively agreeable outcome.

      Commenter
      1
      Location
      Mosman
      Date and time
      September 05, 2013, 8:11AM
    • Yes you are right my wife is doing a uni course and good on her do I resent her no she is working very hard to finish the course as she wants to be a teacher. The article is a load of crock you have no idea you have put your blinkers on and only see what you want to think. Sorry but I don't resent my wife trying to better herself.

      Commenter
      Wayne
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      September 05, 2013, 8:32AM
  • It's fairly unsurprising that men feel a lower sense of self esteem when their partners earn more than them, after all men are almost always raised to believe that one of their primary roles in life is to provide for themselves and their family. It is interesting though that a partner's success in a non earning field that they don't actually care about also impacts their self esteem negatively. I know plenty of men (myself included) who would feel that they weren't pulling their weight if their wife or girlfriend earned more than they did, but I can't say I know of any who would feel worse because their partner was successful in another non competing field.

    Commenter
    Hurrow
    Date and time
    September 04, 2013, 9:24AM
    • Wrong, wrong, wrong!

      Boys feel threatened by anyone else's success, especially that of their partner.

      Men celebrate others success, especially that of their partners.

      Commenter
      BigPhil
      Date and time
      September 04, 2013, 10:04AM

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